“So, what do we do now?”
Barbara looked around the table at the group. Walter, his chair pushed back nearly to the wall; Mr Nuñez quietly finishing his wife’s cookies while Councilwoman Nuñez typed distractedly into her phone; Nana Domzalski tutting over Toby who was clearly both pleased and embarrassed by the attention; Aaarrrgghh, munching on the baking dish Merlin had ruined earlier; and finally the cradlestone, it’s unnatural orange glow occasionally taunting her with uncountable potential.
“Do ‘bout what?” rumbled Aaarrrgghh.
Barbara waved a hand “Any of it.” Her hand settled near to the cradlestone. She grabbed at her coffee cup.
“Hmmmmm…” Aaarrrgghh frowned, “Carry on.”
“Yeah, Wingman!” Toby held out a fist but did not leave his grandmother’s embrace. “You and me, we got this.” Aaarrrgghh bumped fists cheerfully.
The cradlestone drew Barbara’s gaze again. She set down her coffee without drinking it, “I don’t even know how it opens.”
Walter gave a start, glancing up. His long fingers tightened on his tea cup, causing the porcelain to creak in protest. “You want to free the children?”
“Well we can’t just leave them in that rock.” protested Javier with a glare, “How many are there?”
“More than will fit in this house.”
Javier scoffed as though the thought of being overrun by hundreds of displaced infants was a regular Thursday evening. “We’ll return them to their families, Strickler, what else?”
“Hah. Do you have any idea how often changelings are released to the world? There may be years between the right combination of suitable placement and available candidate. Many of those families are no longer around to take in a child. Not to mention the geographic constraints. Arcadia Oaks was not the only location of interest to Gunmar.”
“Then we find another way. I knew you weren’t human but-”
“Boys!” cut in Barbara, finally pulling her gaze away from the cradlestone, “I know a few social workers. If we can sneak them into the adoption list we can get them families. We’ll call them Angel Drop babies if we have to.”
Walter frowned, “That may take a long time, and in the meantime there will be questions about where these children come from.”
“I may have a contact or two with CFS,” Ophelia noted, not looking up from her phone, “And they have contacts out of State. It’s amazing how accommodating people can be if you’re willing to help them avoid some red tape. We can get them on adoption lists clear across the country.”
“And in the meantime we can say they’re victims of the recent catastrophe. To anyone local we can tell them the truth. A version of the truth.” she amended at Walter’s grimace.
He shook his head, “You don’t understand, cradlestones are unpredictable crystals. I can open it, but will have no control. All of the children will be released.”
“All?” asked Barbara, “Walter, how many are we talking about?”
He grimaced, eyeing the cradlestone, “This is far from my area of expertise.”
“Eight, maybe nine hundred? Nine hundred and fifty at the most.”
“Oh, don’t be such a ninny.” crowed Nana. “One baby or nine babies, we’re all here to help, and my Toby is an excellent babysitter.”
“Nine hundred Nana,” corrected Barbara. “Could you put some back after?”
Strickler shook his head, “Crystallography at this level is complex. This stone was made in a hurry, using a microwave. At my skill level releasing all the children might shatter it.”
She gave another glance around the table. Javier had turned pale, and Ophelia had put down her phone. “We can’t fit nine hundred babies in this house.”
“We have to do something.” stuttered Javier weakly.
“Of course we do!” declared Barbara. “We just, um, we’ll get started with the adoption list first. Get the paperwork out of the way. And then we’ll, um…” she turned to Walter. When he had first revealed his true form, she had found him unreadable. His stone features lacked the subtle humour and open expression that she had once found so endearing in his human face. Now she could see the conflict in his eyes, regret in the set of his shoulders, fear in the lines of his frown, and hope in the shake of his fingers, “We’ll figure it out.”
Ophelia and Javier headed to city hall to do the initial heavy lifting. They would deal with as many officials as possible, working deals, negotiations, appeals to compassion, and the occasional bribe to get the children ready to be adopted out quickly and quietly. Barbara had called every contact she had at the hospital, and now had four social workers and five nurses working on faking medical records and contacting potential families as far away as Alaska to take in a new baby. Nana, Toby, and Aaarrrgghh waited until sunset then headed home, promising to return when the babies were released.
“That’s a when not an if young man!” Nana had declared, poking Strickler firmly in the chest. “Babies need a home.” Then she had tapped Aaarrrgghh with her cane until he obliged to carry her on his shoulder.
Then, they were alone. Walter hesitated before following Barbara into the living room. They hadn’t been alone since the disastrous trip to the museum that had ended in both of them kidnapped by GummGumms. He took a breath and stepped into the room, she was pacing, occasionally running a hand along the spines of the bookshelves.
“Is there someone else we can go to?” she interrupted, as though she hadn’t heard him.
He stopped short, caught off guard by her question, “Someone else?”
“Someone who knows crystals, or rocks, or whatever. Someone who can get the babies out of that cradle-rock one at a time. Or even two or three or, well, few enough to get them adopted before we break out the rest. You’re brilliant Walt, but you’re a historian. You are a historian, right?” She paused, staring at him.
“Well that’s a relief.” She resumed her pacing.
“Hmm, yes, something you didn’t lie to me about.”
He frowned, she seemed to be happy he was there, and she had followed his advice during the lead-up to the fight against Gunmar, but he wasn’t sure where they stood now that the danger had passed.
“While I did serve other roles, what I told you was true, or perhaps, a version of the truth if you will. I am a student of history and lore, human history, but Trollish as well.”
She nodded absently, running a hand along the bookshelf again, “So, what you’re saying is: you lied by omission. What you told me was almost true, just add Trolls.”
“Barbara, I know I have offended you, my actions in the past were unspeakable. I can only apolo-”
“What? No, Walter that’s it!” She snapped her fingers and turned to him, eyes shining.
“I – what?”
“You’re a historian, plus Trolls. Which means when you told me about your book collection, that was true too, plus Trolls. Right?”
“I – er – yes?”
“So that’s it! You must have a book somewhere with more information about these rocks and what they can do?”
“Oh, yes, I mean, it’s possible. Crystallography hasn’t been a particular focus of mine but –”
“Then let’s go!” She moved to the entryway and started putting on shoes. “It’s at your apartment right? Let’s see what we can find.”
She gestured out the window, “It’s dark enough, you’ll be safe and no one will see you. Or if they do, they might even recognize you.”
“I sincerely hope not.” Walter muttered, but followed her out the door and into the car.
Sneaking into Walter’s apartment was relatively simple. The spare key was still where he’d left it and, aside from a few broken windows, there was little damage from the recent battle that had ravaged the town. As Walter led the way to the study, Barbara looked around carefully.
“I’ve never been here before,” she said softly, “You never invited me over. I guess I thought there’d be more to give away your secret.”
“Isn’t there?” He looked back at her, surprised. She was interested. He smiled, of course she was interested. No matter what was happening or how unimaginable her life became, Barbara Lake was always asking questions, always trying to figure things out and see what she could do about it. Her mind was beautiful. During what he thought of, perhaps incorrectly, as their courtship, he had delighted in presenting her with new perspectives or facts from history and listening to her puzzle them out. Both of their areas of expertise involved understanding how small details contribute to a larger impact. Perhaps there was more of their relationship that hadn’t been lost.
She returned his smile, “It’s just a normal house Walt.”
“And this?” He opened the door to the study. Dark wood bookshelves covered the walls, some of the books were ancient and crumbling, none were younger than fifty years old. Stone knick-nacks dotted the shelves including several knives; a mortar and pestle carved with arcane symbols; a bowl filled with stones of varying hues; small statues, some Trollish, some human, some showing a frightening transition between the two; and several items she couldn’t identify. Looking more closely at the nearest bookshelf, she found some of the books were also written in languages she couldn’t identify. She recognized some Latin and Greek from medical terms, one or two nearby were in an Eastern European alphabet, and a handful were in English. The rest were completely indecipherable.
“This qualifies as strange.” She nodded, “So where do we start?”
“Let’s filter out the books specifically on mineralogy and crystal properties first. There won’t be many unfortunately. The histories will be of no use to us. From there we can see if any shed some light on our particular predicament.”
It was relatively slow going. Barbara ended up flipping through books to find diagrams whenever she didn’t recognize the language. Walter alternated between tossing books haphazardly into piles and sitting quietly pouring over page after page. As the seconds ticked by Barbara found her gaze drawn to the knives and other Trollish curiosities scattered around the room.
“You were with the Janus Order for a long time?” she finally asked.
He looked up from his tome with a start. “Yes. Decades in fact. I suppose you would call me a general.” He closed the book and tossed it aside. “This one’s useless.”
“So I guess you did a lot of…things, for them?”
“Y-yes.” He said, hesitating slightly, “We had many plans for the betterment of Changelings, most aligned with Gunmar’s plans, some decidedly not.”
“Hmmm…” She continued flipping through the book, through she was no longer really looking at the pages. The script was unfamiliar and code-like, if she had to guess she’d say it was probably Sumerian, but she had no basis for comparison. “But you were mostly doing what you were told?”
“I have found that excuse to be entirely contextual, and most often inadequate. What is this about Barbara?”
She was staring at a knife on the shelf. A knife the same size and weight at the feather blades that made up his cloak. The cloak that she had never seen him take off when in troll form, not when they were fooling Detective Scott, not after the battle when he had changed into the spare dress shirt and pants he had brought to her house, not even now in his own home surrounded by books. The only reason he could feel so comfortable covered with so many weapons would be if he was used to it, if he needed to always have multiple weapons easily at hand, if he – “Walter,” she interrupted her own spiraling thoughts, “Have you ever killed anyone?”
She glanced over, he was frowning at the book in his hands, gathering his thoughts, “Oh god, that’s a yes, isn’t it?”
“It’s a –” He took a breath, and turned to her, “Never if there was any other option. And never again if you don’t want me to.”
“If I don’t want you to? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Hopefully, that whatever trust you have in me is not misplaced. You have been lied to enough Barbara, and you deserve better. I won’t keep anything from you, and I can’t lie to you anymore,” He smirked, “You’d see right through me after all.”
“You better believe it,” she replied automatically. She took a breath and continued sorting, “And I understand, or at least I’m trying to. You were a soldier, it was war. I’m just trying to understand you. Trying to figure out who you were and who you are now, where we stand. Heh, maybe I'm still trying to figure out if this qualifies as Stockholm Syndrome."
He let out a derisive laugh. "Please, you hit me in the face with a broom, and I let you. I'm sworn to defend you, this is Lima Syndrome at best."
“Well that’s a relief,” she replied with a sardonic eyebrow. He ducked his head to hide his smile at that, but when he looked up, she had turned back to the books, shuffling a pile to the side and pulling another off the shelf. As he watched, a shaft of moonlight peaked through the clouds and illuminated her hair. She was lovely, as he’d always seen her, but somehow more vulnerable now, the worries from the past few days weighing on her shoulders.
"I'll leave if you want me to." He said.
She looked up, a slight smile playing at her lips, "I thought you were sworn to protect me?"
"I am, and I'm certain that should you come to any physical harm, young Jim would not hesitate to separate my head from my shoulders. However, I'm more concerned about any mental, or emotional harm I may be causing."
"You think you're hurting me?" The smile was gone.
She paused, it was good to hear him admit it, in her experience most men hadn’t. "You did. At first, not knowing why you left hurt more than you leaving. Later, when I found out what you wanted to do to Jim, I didn't think I could ever forgive you for that, even though he did. I don't know where he gets his nobility."
"I do," said Strickler with a slight smile,
"And that’s not even getting into the fact that you used me to manipulate him.” She continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “The whole time, and there was nothing I could do, I couldn’t help him, couldn’t even talk to him because I didn’t know it was happening. You’ve promised not to lie to me Walt, but you promised me things before.”
“Barbara I – it’s meaningless to say I’ve changed isn’t it?” he looked glumly at the book in his hands.
“Have you?” she challenged him.
He gave her answer some thought before replying, “I would like to think so. But perhaps it is just my perspective that shifted. My center, what I would sacrifice everything to protect, includes you now.”
She nodded, “And Jim?”
“He hardly needs my protection, but yes, of course.”
Their eyes met across the piles of books in the study. Barbara cleared her throat, “It’s not here.”
Walter started slightly at the change in subject, “What?”
“Whatever we need to open the cradlestone. It’s not here.” She waved at the books piling the floor. Then grabbed a stack to put them back on the now empty shelves.
“Er, yes it would seem so. When there was a subject I was missing, usually Nomura was able to have it brought in through the museum resources.”
“Well that avenue is gone to New Jersey.” She let out a jaw-cracking yawn. Walter glanced out the window, it was near sunrise.
“We’re not going to figure out anything else tonight, and you need rest. Take the bed. I insist. I’ll clean this up.”
She shook her head and moved to grab another stack, but was interrupted by another yawn, “I can’t leave you with this mess.”
“Would it help if I complained about you putting away the books out of order?”
That earned him a grin, “Fine, but only because we’ll have another big night tomorrow trying to find other places to look.” She turned and headed out of the study, but stopped at the door. “Walter? Thanks, for being honest with me.”
True to his word, Strickler slept on the couch. It was less than ideal as he had picked out the couch as a human, but was now significantly taller as a Troll. His back, shoulders, and wing joints were aching when he stumbled awake in the early evening and found Barbara muttering in the kitchen.
“Don’t worry it’s just coffee.” She reassured him, “Even I couldn’t mess that up. Walt, I’ve been thinking about the Janus Order. We need to break into the old headquarters.”
“This will end tragically won’t it?” he groaned into his coffee cup.
“No think about it!” She was already wide awake, pacing the room and gesticulating erratically, “Where else in this town would there be a collection of Troll information? They’ve got to have a library or archive or something.”
“All of which was destroyed when the Order was attacked. GummGumms have no love for arcane knowledge.” There was a half empty box of donuts on the table, giving evidence for her slightly hyper state, he picked one out hesitantly.
“All destroyed? Even the back-ups?”
“Did you ever scan in digital copies of your files?
He nodded slowly, “We maintained data servers in the Janus Order, but the transition to digitization is an abysmally slow one for Trollkind, even many Changelings were skeptical at first.” he made a noise somewhere between derision and humour, “Only the truly adventurous know how to use a computer, if they even properly know what one is, and as for Trolls, half of them only accepted electricity in the last few years.”
“There you go!” She exclaimed triumphantly.
He blinked at her and reached for another donut, “You’ve lost me.”
“Come on Walt!” She groaned, “The Janus Order was destroyed by Trolls, right?”
“By Gunmar’s army, yes.”
“And Trolls don’t understand human technology?”
“Not generally, no.”
“So, when they destroyed the facility, they wouldn’t have thought to wipe the computers or servers.”
Walter paused, third donut forgotten, “It’s likely that the attackers didn’t even know what a server is, much less think to look for them.”
“So,” she continued triumphantly, “All your data, all your back-up info, should still be there, intact, and ready to access!”
“Barbara, you’re brilliant!”
She grinned, “I have my moments. As soon as the sun goes down we’ll head over.”
Walter’s smile disappeared like a light switch had turned it off. “You’re not coming.”
“Of course I am, it’s dangerous alone.”
“Do not use that argument on me. No, Barbara, please. The Janus Order was a slaughter. The headquarters are a graveyard now. It may not be a part of my life any longer, but that doesn’t make it any less painful.”
She reached out and took his hand. “I’m here for you Walt, whatever you need, let me be there for you. You want me to trust you? You want to protect me? Let me protect you for a little while.”
He stared down and their entwined hands for a moment before answering. While she was less free with casual touches than before, she had never shown any hesitation to touching him in his Troll form. It was simple, easy to believe nothing had changed, that she truly saw him as whole. “Very well,” he agreed.
They entered the Janus Order headquarters through the back entrance. It was closest to the server room, and most likely, Walter predicted, to be empty of bodies. On the second point, he was wrong.
“Oh my god,” breathed Barbara as they stepped carefully down the hall. “What is this?”
“My people.” Ground out Strickler, voice harsh and rough with emotion, “Cut down like sheep to the slaughter. All for trusting a leader who claimed he could elevate them from their disgraced status.”
“There’s so many of them.” She knelt to examine a body, now a mix of stone fragments, ash, and bones that only looked human.
“They had been called in,” he snarled, “Changelings from around the world called to welcome their great master.” He coughed, hating the burning in his eyes and throat, “There’s none of us left now.” Staring down the hall, he barely noticed when Barbara placed her hand on his shoulder. It was only when she reached up to wipe the tears from his face that he realized he’d been crying.
“Let’s get to a terminal.” She said softly.
The server terminals were relatively undamaged. They were able to each take separate screens to pull up the main database and sift through information. It was eerily quiet, the occasional clack of a keyboard echoing strangely in the room meant for several more beings. Although Walter preferred quiet for research and reading, Barbara, who was used to a much more chaotic work environment, eventually started singing softly to fill the space. It was soothing rather than distracting however, and Walter found himself humming along with the occasional melody.
The data archive was large and poorly organized. At one point Barbara left and returned with sandwiches from an all-night diner. Finally, near dawn, Walter found himself staring blearily at a detailed description of crystals used to transport Changeling familiars into and out of the Darklands. “This might be it.”
“This might be it!” He said louder, excitement growing. “I found it, Barbara, I think I’ve done it!”
“We might have bigger problems.”
She waved him over and pointed at an e-mail on the screen, “I found this a few minutes ago, looks like it was sent to several different people in the Order.”
The e-mail was short and unsigned:
Help! Something happened last night. I can’t transform back into my human form. Something must be wrong with the familiars. I left the Janus Order years ago, but I’m trapped as a troll and have nowhere else to go. Please help!
She was staring up at him as he read the letter through twice, “How many others are there?”
“I… I don’t know.” He shook his head, stunned.
“Where will they go? Will they be safe?”
“I don’t know.” He swallowed, a horrible realization catching up with him, “No. Nowhere is safe.”
“Changelings are creatures of two worlds, and of neither. Vulnerable to sunlight, shunned by trollkind, feared and hunted as monsters among humans. Created by the sworn enemy of Merlin and bred for infiltration and subterfuge. We are not to be trusted.” He waved a hand at her indignant snort, “There is nowhere to go.”
She was silent for a moment, glancing between his face and the screen. Finally she turned to face him head on. “Well that’s just ridiculous. People aren’t set by what they’re “bred” for Walter. Your people deserve a second chance. They deserve a home.”
“Hmmm, my people indeed.” He said quietly, there was a note to his voice that she couldn’t quite parse.
“So? What should we do?”
“Do? Nothing. Even if there was some way to help, we have other concerns.” He gestured toward his terminal, still showing the detailed crystal matrix they had come to find.
“We can’t just leave them! We have to help.”
“Why?” He asked, genuinely confused, “Who is this person, these people, to us?”
“Well, they’re like you!” She waved a hand at the screen as though this were the obvious answer, “But that doesn’t even matter. They need help, and we’re the only ones who can.”
He shook his head sadly, “We’ve spent the last two nights searching for information that will allow us to help the trapped infants in the cradlestone. Ophelia and Javier Nuñez are spending the days ensuring the babies have somewhere to go when we do. We’re already doing all we can. You can’t save everyone Barbara.”
“I know that. I work in a hospital Walter, of course I know that,” She turned her chair back to the terminal and started typing, “But we can’t turn our backs on people asking for help either. It’ll be a while before we’re ready to start releasing babies from the cradlestone, I’ll do what I can until then.”
He stared at her back, helpless, but with a slight smile playing at his lips. “What are you doing?”
“Letting him know that someone is listening. That we’re on his side, and -” she paused, thoughtful for a moment, then snapped her fingers and continued typing. “And telling him to head to New Jersey. I’ll call Jim in the morning, see if there’s room in that new Troll-town they’re making.”
Walter gave a start at that. “Trollmarket? Relations between Changelings and Trolls are steeped in mistrust going back millennia. You’ll be giving young Jim a diplomatic mess on top of everything else he’s dealing with. Are you truly comfortable placing more responsibility on his shoulders?”
She chewed on her bottom lip but continued typing, “Nomura will help, and I’ll call Blinky as well, make sure he gets the other trolls on board. Jim needs a win. One he can get diplomatically since he’s too injured to fight.” She sniffed and wiped her eyes, but kept typing, “I’ll get Blinky to make sure he doesn’t work too hard, and I’ll warn this guy what he’s in for; he should be on his best behaviour.”
Shaking his head again, Walter returned to his chair. “One Changeling is hardly worth all this effort.” He said softly.
Barbara heard him anyway, “Everyone’s worth it.” She said definitively, “There have been too many casualties in this fight. It’s time for peace, and it’s time for us to help each other.” She started shutting down her terminal to leave. “You’re worth it too, Walter.”
By the end of the week, Walter had figured out how to release infants from the cradlestone a couple at a time, and Barbara had successfully co-ordinated the transport and resettlement of twelve Changelings to the New Jersey Trollmarket. Blinky had been hesitant at first, but between Jim, Barbara, and eventually Walter as well, he’d come around firmly to their side and had made significant progress convincing the other trolls as well. They had invited over the Domzalski’s and the Nuñez’s for a celebratory dinner (pizza, Jim had warned Strickler again about his mother’s cooking), and to help with the first few babies which Ophelia and Javier already had homes lined up for. With half an hour before guests were due to arrive, they were savouring the last few moments of quiet.
“I owe you an apology.” said Walter suddenly.
“What for? No, wait, what for most recently?” She winked to let him in on the joke.
“You were right. I tried to talk you out of helping the Changelings, I didn’t think any of us could be saved. But this week, watching you work with them, you listened to every one of their problems and tried to find solutions. You talked around Blinkus Galadrigal! I told you that you couldn’t save everyone, and yet there you stand.”
Barbara blushed and smiled, “You did a lot of that work yourself, you know.”
“Only by your influence, you are the most honestly good person I know, and now I,” He paused, suddenly nervous, hands clenched tightly in his lap, “I have a request of you.”
“Of course, name it.”
To her surprise, he winced at that, “Please consider this carefully before you decide. I am trying to be the better person, but I will fail. For most of my life, my decisions were to further my own goals and those of a cruel master. I cannot know that the decisions I make now are truly noble or merely the product of those years of conditioning.”
“You need me to be your Jiminy Cricket?”
“I need you to be you, Barbara. Just you. For as long as you’ll have me.” He looked up into her eyes, “I am asking to stay with you. To be beside you to support you with Jim, with these infants, and with whoever you decide to save next. I won’t promise not to hurt you, you’ve been hurt before, and you wouldn’t trust that promise from me anyway. But I do care for you, Barbara Lake, and I’m asking if you care for me.”
Her breath caught in her throat, she could barely think. Slowly, she leaned forward and planted a kiss on his lips.
It was dramatically different from kissing him before his transformation. As a Troll his lips were cool, smooth, and stone. He still reacted with slight surprise and melted into her touch. He was still eager, kissing her deeply yet following her lead. But now his hands felt more assured as they traced up her arms, through her hair, and down to her hips. Now when she pushed towards him she could feel the rumble of excitement in his chest. Almost without her noticing he slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her effortlessly from her chair and into his lap.
“Yes.” She said breathlessly, breaking the kiss to look into his eyes, “Yes, of course I care about you.”
They were not finished kissing when the guests arrived, but there would be more time later.